Scientists at Karolinska Institutet identified a specific gene mutation that protects against severe COVID-19 infections in an international meta-analysis.
By studying people of different ancestries, researchers pinpointed the variant, a feat they say emphasizes the importance of including people of different backgrounds in clinical trials.
They reported their findings on Nature Genetics.
Genetics can also affect whether we are severely affected or only suffer mild symptoms from COVID-19, aside from old age and certain underlying diseases.
Researchers have found that individuals with a particular segment of DNA are 20 percent less likely to develop a life-threatening COVID-19 infection compared with people who do not have this segment of DNA.
Approximately half of all people from the Neanderthals possess this DNA segment, which encodes genes in the immune system.
Despite this, this region of DNA is packed with numerous genetic variants, making it difficult to determine which variant is the protective one against severe COVID-19 infection.
COVID Analysis on Different Ancestries of People
In this study, researchers identified this particular gene variant by looking at individuals with only parts of this DNA segment, Medicalxpress reported.
A potential focus was on African ancestry individuals who lack a Neanderthal heritage but have therefore retained most of the genetic material from the Neanderthal era.
Yet, a small portion of this DNA region is the same in both Africans and Europeans.
Researchers have found that people of predominantly African descent have the same protective gene variant as those who are of European descent.
“The fact that individuals of African descent had the same protection allowed us to identify the unique variant in the DNA that actually protects from COVID-19 infection,” the first author of the study, Jennifer Huffman said.
2,787 patients of African ancestry hospitalized with COVID-19 and 130,997 control subjects from six cohort studies were included in the analysis.
African-born individuals carried the protective variant in 80 percent of cases.
The results were compared with those from a previous, larger metastudy of European descent.
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The Key to Developing Potential COVID Drugs
Researchers revealed that the protective gene variant (rs10774671-G) determines the length of the protein encoded by the gene OAS1.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, is more effectively broken down by a longer variant of the protein.
“That we are beginning to understand the genetic risk factors in detail is key to developing new drugs against COVID-19,” said co-author Brent Richards who is a professor at McGill University in Canada.
Diversity as a Prerequisite
Research across different parts of the world has been sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing researchers to study genetic risk factors in a wider range of individuals than in many previous studies.
Nevertheless, most clinical research is still conducted on people of predominantly European descent.
“This study shows how important it is to include individuals of different ancestries. If we had only studied one group, we would not have been successful in identifying the gene variant in this case,” a co-author of the study, author Hugo Zeberg said.